Moving New Technologies to Market

By Annel K. Greene, PhD, Professor and Center Director
Clemson University Animal Co-Products Research and Education Center

In early April, a roundtable discussion on the subject of moving new technologies to market was held in conjunction with the Clemson University Animal Co-Products Research and Education Center (ACREC) spring meeting. The purpose of the roundtable was to identify necessary next steps to move ACREC technologies to the marketplace for the benefit of the rendering industry.

Vincie Albritton, deputy director of the Clemson University Research Foundation (CURF), described to the group how successful research-to-technology commercialization is typically a long process with many licensed technologies only realizing truly significant royalty returns after 10 or more years post-research and filing of patent applications. Each invention moves at a different pace depending on complexity, ability to obtain proof of concept on the laboratory scale, need for further development and/or scale-up for commercialization, patenting, marketing, licensure, and so on. Therefore, each invention must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine the best way to successfully move the technology into the marketplace.

Chris Gesswein, CURF director of licensing for technology transfer and a molecular biologist raised on a dairy farm in Maryland, is familiar with the rendering industry and the work of ACREC scientists to create new technologies, products, and opportunities for renderers. He explained that technologies often come to CURF early in the conceptual phase. Because the patent process can be protracted and very expensive, CURF conducts a thorough evaluation for market potential before deciding to invest time and money into patenting. A large part of this evaluation is identifying an initial marketing plan. Traditionally, university tech transfer offices have operated in a mode known as a “technology push” wherein after disclosure of the technology, opportunities are sought for that technology in the marketplace. However, at Clemson University, the tech transfer office is pivoting this concept so that instead of having an invention looking for an application, they have a technology pool of applications/needs that new inventions can fulfill.

To accomplish this, Clemson must often further develop the technology to make it more readily viable for the marketplace and to fulfill technology needs. The CURF Maturation Fund was created to provide gap monies to advance technologies to license. Using proceeds from the sale of CURF real estate and retained royalties from Clemson’s Tech Transfer Endowment, this funding is used as pre-seed “investment” in technologies that are owned by the university. The purpose of this support is to mature the technology to the point where an industry transaction can occur. Such a transaction may be a license agreement, an option to an existing or start-up company, or an award of a small business innovation research grant from a federal agency. The CURF monies can also be used to perform a defined activity (in a limited scope) such as prototyping, field testing, generation of data and samples, or other needs to further the technology to the point it is viable for licensing. In 2015, CURF chose five out of 14 proposals for total funding of $143,000 and in 2016, four of 11 proposals have been supported at $288,000. In the past two years, two of the technologies receiving contributions from the CURF Maturation Fund are ACREC projects.

The first ACREC venture funded was the natural antioxidant project of Drs. Alexey Vertegel and Vladimir Reukov, who conducted the initial research leading to the discovery of an antioxidant they named Prot-X. Upon expressing a desire to form a start-up company, Fats and Proteins Research Foundation personnel recommended they work with Dr. David Meisinger, former executive director, United States Pork Center of Excellence. The trio subsequently formed the start-up company VRM Labs. Financial support from the CURF Maturation Fund provided access to pilot plant equipment at Iowa State University as well as successful scale-up and technology maturity that has attracted an investor to the project. Funding also allowed generation of production data for an Association of American Feed Control Officials regulatory submission and completion of mandatory viral load safety testing.

A CURF Maturation Fund grant also went to ACREC researchers Drs. Daniel Whitehead and Frank Alexis for their odor destroying, biodegradable nanoparticles. The CURF contribution allowed purchase of equipment for pilot-scale feasibility and cost modeling as well as production of kilogram quantities of the nanoparticles. This CURF-funded work has allowed collaboration with an advanced materials company in Anderson, South Carolina, and is strengthening the case for licensure and commercialization of the technology.

The critical needs for industrial process scale-up during technology progression were explained to roundtable participants by senior process engineer John M. Harden. He listed the typical stages of industrial process advancement as concept development, laboratory scale, pilot scale, semi-works scale, and full scale. Harden reported that with each increase in scale, valuable and critical information is learned. He explained that concept development involves identification of a potential solution to a problem, identification of a potential resource, recognition of a new approach to an existing process, and/or response to changing economic or regulatory conditions.

On a laboratory scale, processes are typically limited to about 1.3 gallons or less and are most commonly conducted in glassware, in batch operations, and with external containment such as a chemical hood or an enclosure. Laboratory scale allows for maximum flexibility for process modifications, fast response to changing conditions, and relatively simple regulatory compliance. Moving up to pilot operations typically involves 10 to 1,000 gallons and a change in construction materials. Whereas laboratory scale uses glassware, manual transfers, stirring bars, and heating mantles, pilot plant operations require metal pressure vessels, jacketed vessels, agitators, metal tubing, compression fittings, pumps, and valves.

Typically, laboratory scale processes are conducted at atmospheric pressure, reagents are chosen for effectiveness, external containment is used, and regulatory compliance is simple. However, on the pilot scale, containers are pressurized, reagents are chosen for regulatory compliance, venting and closed containment are required, and complex government demands are necessary. In most cases, laboratory operations are conducted in batch systems with manual control, the systems allow fast response, mistakes can simply be a nuisance, and the procedures are relatively inexpensive. Pilot plant operations are most commonly continuous systems, computer-controlled, delayed response, and mistakes can be catastrophic. The pilot plant is also more expensive to build and operate than laboratory scale due to larger equipment and more robust construction requirements, regulatory compliance, and personnel.

Harden pointed out that although a pilot plant requires an investment in time and money, it can uncover problem areas that often are not experienced on a laboratory scale. Pilot plant operations generate essential design data for full-scale systems, allow training of operators and also provide fine-tuning of the process. Harden has more than 30 years of experience as a process engineer at both Clemson University and in industry. He relayed a story where a company, over the objections of the process engineers, chose to skip the $1 million pilot plant and instead built a $19 to $20 million full-scale facility. Unfortunately, an irreversible process design problem with the technology not evident on the laboratory scale was found upon completion of the full-scale plant. This flaw could have been identified if a pilot facility had been included during scale-up. Harden emphasized that it is critically important to sequentially scale-up operations during the evaluation of technologies for feasibility and subsequent commercialization.

Dr. Greg Pickett, senior associate dean of the Clemson University College of Business and Behavioral Science and director of the master of business administration (MBA) program, discussed ways to move ideas to market and the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Clemson University that helps support technology development. A number of mechanisms are in place at Clemson, including the Arthur M. Spiro Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute that guides educational efforts reaching freshman to graduate-level students. Pickett previously served as the director of the institute, which works with faculty, staff, and students to ignite their passions and help them create new businesses. In addition, a student living-learning community has been created that invites students from all over campus to interact with leaders in entrepreneurial enterprises. At Clemson, there are strong resources for business development and to assist with new innovation launches through the technology transfer division of CURF as well as the MBA program and the Spiro Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute. Pickett described how these units of the university serve as a connection to assist entrepreneurs move inventions to technology incubators that allow further development. They are a source of information that might include market assessments through some MBA classes. Other mechanisms, such as a new technology village program under consideration, could serve as structured resources for information.

Dr. Chad Navis, the Arthur M. Spiro endowed professor of entrepreneurial leadership at Clemson, spoke about the opportunities for involving students in entrepreneurial enterprises. There are three challenges concerning the entrepreneurial atmosphere related to university and technology development. The first is the culture of the university and interaction with industry. The second is the proof of concept as well as industry readiness of the technology. The third is the curriculum and ability to involve students in the business aspects of technology development. Navis recently joined Clemson University to fill the endowed professorship and sees great opportunities for engaging students in technological growth and commercialization.

Technology development can be a very slow process from concept to research, patent protection, subsequent licensing, and finally moving into the marketplace. However, the rewards of successful technology to solve problems as well as reap royalty revenue can be great. For instance, one of Clemson’s greatest technology development successes was the “Clemson hip” associated with United States Patent #4491987A by Joon B. Park. The university contribution to hip replacement technology has not only helped millions of patients worldwide live better lives, but the license has generated $29 million in gross royalty revenue over the lifetime of the patent.

Success from good ideas can occur but it takes time to develop the concept to full fruition through basic research, proper scale-up to pilot plant to ensure commercial feasibility, legal protection through patents, marketing the technology to the right partners, licensing, and finally commercial production. Technologies developed at ACREC are being put into this pipeline for the rendering industry. The recent roundtable identified possible university partners who can help guide these new ACREC technologies to success.

June 2016 RENDER | back